Why historians hate anachronisms

Way back in this blog post about population growth, I casually mentioned something I called the ‘tragedy of the antiquarian’. I used this term to refer to the fact that historians love stories, but hate any factual inaccuracies. Sound like you? Congratulations, you are a history geek, in my eyes at least. If you aren’t bothered by this, well done for achieving spiritual enlightenment. This particular post isn’t really relevant to you, but it might help you to understand what the rest of us go through.

Imagine that you are watching a film, or playing a game set in your favourite time period. You hear or see something that doesn’t fit in with what you know about the era. It’s probably something that was accidentally left in, rather than something that was intentionally added. Whatever the case it grates and, even if it’s only for a moment, you stop enjoying the immersion, and remember that this is a product, made in modern times by people who are probably still out there somewhere, and one of them made a booboo.

You are not alone

Every kind of nerd has to stomach a similar reaction when they see an adaptation of their interest with details that are not cannon. It’s all about suspension of disbelief. If you have invested time learning about a subject, then there will almost inevitably an emotional investment as well. No-one wants to think that they have wasted their time. (Nerd reassurance: Your time was not wasted; you exercised logic and indulged your imagination, and both of those are essential tools in modern life).

To err is human

As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, media products are not usually made by people who know that particular time period in depth. They are made by media companies who know how to make good products. They are (sometimes) advised by historians who know the period. Most of the time, media professionals take the world they know and extrapolate from it, carrying out research as and when they need to. Even historical consultants can’t catch every mistake, but as we only spot the ones that slip through, this is what we judge them by.

Attention to detail is expensive

Yes, you could pay a blacksmith armourer to make all the metalwork in your film using techniques that were available at the time, but it would probably be a helluva lot more expensive, and take way longer. If only 1% of your target audience is going to notice the difference, why would you take the harder option. Historical consultants are expensive, and so are re-shoots and update patches. Historical accuracy is a low priority compared to whether the product will work. It may be your life’s work to tell the truth about the past, but it isn’t theirs.

Some inaccuracies are needed for the story to make sense

I get that you are really upset that Alexander has an Irish accent, and Leonidas has a Scottish one, but I don’t hear you complaining that they are speaking English. In a similar way, there are some tropes in games that you expect, because the world would feel strange without them. This is why there are guards walking around acting like policemen, and signs written in modern English. Exposition is boring; and immersion is easiest when the world is couched in terms that the public understands. To ignore this fact and still complain about the accidental mistakes is a bit of a double standard.

We are the problem

Historians are usually story tellers, even if it’s just ‘You’ll never guess what Caligula got up to in his spare time’. We love to tell stories, but we lose patience when someone else gets one slightly wrong. The only way to truly overcome this crippling drawback is to let go of the importance of historical accuracy. Only then can you admire the storytelling.

Unless it’s godawful; then you can gripe all you like.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the one where I look at the eras that Hollywood neglects, the one where I become an apologist for ‘300 Rise of an Empire’, or the one where I get hung up on the food factual inaccuracies in the Lord of the Rings.

Check out medieval Darth Vader’s helm (via @iandoescher)

Check out  medieval Darth Vader's helm (via @iandoescher)

In honour of Shakespeare’s birthday (admittedly a couple of days ago now) here’s a picture of what Shakespeare’s Darth Vader might have worn. For context, please read this interview I did with Ian Doescher, the author of ‘Shakespeare’s Star Wars’.

The Dark Ages of Film

This afternoon, apart from watching a very enjoyable Game of Thrones episode, I have been attempting to compile a reasonably thorough list of all the historical films. This is a hard thing to do. My list was compiled from two Wikipedia pages; its list of historical drama films and (because this has to be separate for some reason) its list of Asian historical drama films. What I was trying to do, was establish whether there were any periods that cinema actively avoids. I found out a lot more than that.

Dark Ages of Film

This graph shows the 600-odd films that I included in my data, stacked cumulatively so that you can get a general impression of when these films are set. Get your head round that while I delve into the boring stuff. If boring stuff isn’t your thing, feel free to skip right to ‘Dear film industry’.


I feel slightly obliged to go into this for anyone who might want to use this data for more serious uses. I should say up front that there was a fair bit of fudging. Wikipedia is not the foremost resource for serious number-bashers, even if it is very useful for a mildly-interested blogger. I could find no better resource in the short amount of time I wanted to dedicate to this project.

I copied the data directly from Wikipedia, and edited it so that the dates the films were set in would display as data points. This meant that any film that took place over a number of years had to be cut down to one year. I went for the earliest year, because this is usually the year that gets a subtitle at the start of the film. I also used negative figures to indicate dates BCE.

I did the same thing for the dates the films were produced in, and tinkered with the titles a wee bit. There are still a lot of inconsistencies in there, but for my purposes it works. I then formatted the two numerical columns with colour scales so that a casual observer could draw some easy conclusions.

Dear film industry

One of the immediate conclusions I drew was that when historical films started popping up in about 1903, you weren’t making many films about the Watergate scandal. This is perhaps obvious; the film industry has been trying to predict the future almost since it’s foundation, but it hasn’t nailed it just yet.  I didn’t want this to interfere with my conclusions too much, so I decided to make 1903 the cut-off date for ‘history’. Sorry late-modern fans.

Trying to find out whether there was a ‘dark ages’ of film kind-of reminded me of the following scene from The Invention of Lying. Essentially, Ricky Gervais’s character exists in a world where people can’t lie, and no-one has an imagination. He works at Lecture Films, which produces films about historical periods, read from a manuscript by a lecturer. Gervais has been covering a ‘boring’ century, so his scripts suck.

The reality of the situation is very different. Film makers aren’t historians, so they don’t know about the cool stuff that is going on in each century. More often than not, they are remaking films that they already have the rights to, or are covering stories that have been famous from antiquity, possibly just from a different angle.

On the curve of my cumulative graph, there is a clear decrease in the number of films from about the turn of BCE-CE. It increases  from about 600-1300CE, and again from 1700 onwards. Draw your own conclusions, but to me, this suggests that historical films tend to follow the source material. This may or may not be a bad thing. On the one hand, film makers are sticking to what is attested, and relying on primary source material. On the other, it means that a great story-telling medium such as film – which can be used to invent stories which fit into what we know about an era – is neglecting history. Please let me know what you think.

If you are interested in having a look at my data for yourself, please check out my Dark Ages of Film spreadsheet.

Edit 12/06/2014 Randall Munroe’s ‘What If’ blog has answered the amusing question of whether any wars were shorter than the combined film filmography about them. It is worth checking out.

What would the giants of history be doing today? by @HistoricalHoney

In the second half of our blog swap with Historical Honey, we’re taking a look at what historical figures would be doing if they got a second crack of the whip.

Just because you have a slick job in the city today doesn’t mean you would’ve been a high flyer a few centuries ago. Maybe you did get lucky and were a man at court, but it’s more likely that you drew the short straw and were either a farmer, chimney sweep, leather tanner, plague burier or, god forbid, a leech collector.

But what if we did a Blazin’ Squad and ‘flip reversed’ it; have you ever wondered what the giants of history would be doing if they stepped into our 21st century world? Let’s take a look…

Ever wondered what Oliver Cromwell would be doing today?

He’s a man you love to hate or hate to love; the marmite of the English Civil War, and as such he would no doubt take on a similar role in society today. Cromwell was always a man of government before his military career took off, and as such this talented statesman would return to the field he knew best. But with a Cambridge education Cromwell is no fool. After you’ve been posthumously hanged by disgruntled monarchists you would be quite content to retire to a job in the shadows as the nation’s tax man.

What would Cromwell be doing now?

Ever wondered what Pocahontas would be doing today?

Pocahontas managed to build relations between the tribal nations and colonial settlement in Virginia through her sympathies to Englishman John Smith. During her captivity she was forced to embrace other cultures and was even presented to English society as an example of the civilized ‘savage’ in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement – she must have been one brave and courageous woman! For a native tribeswoman to hold such sympathies towards foreigners settling on your land is quite remarkable, and therefore, there is no doubt Pocahontas would continue to maintain international peace as an ambassador of the United Nations.

What would Pocahontas be doing now?

Ever wondered what Catherine Parr would be doing today?

As the last surviving wife of Henry VIII, there is no doubt this woman recognised when it was time to act and when it was time to just shut up! She certainly knew what it took to not make a hat trick out of Henry’s penchant for headless wives. During her time on the throne Catherine demonstrated her intelligence, influence and skill for diplomacy by initiating the Third Succession Act and being appointed as Regent when Henry was on a military campaign in France. She even managed to find time to publish books, becoming the first queen ever to do so!

With a First Lady’s passion for charity and wellbeing, in a country strong on religion, there is no doubt this role would have suited Catherine to a T!

What would Catherine Parr be doing now?

Lucrezia Borgia

Even though she knew her own mind, there is no doubt Lucrezia was used as a pawn in the Borgia game to keep hold of the Popery. Being exposed to such a corrupt world the first time round would make Lucrezia want to break free of her ties and do whatever she wanted. The only people to figuratively ‘get away with murder’ these days are celebrities, and as a real beauty Lucrezia would have definitely followed suit. Nobody does it better than a certain twerk-happy pop princess!

What would Lucezia Borgia be doing now?

If this blog has only served to whet your appetite, you can find more historical figures here.